Billy Elliott The Musical ran for more than three years on Broadway and garnered 12 Tonys. Clearly, audiences, critics and theatre people themselves found a lot to admire. I just saw a production by a national touring company. And I don’t get it.
This major hit, derived from the movie from 2000, deals with a pre-teen lad who overcomes working class origins and struggles to surmount the odds of becoming a ballet dancer over the objections of a hard-nosed father and unyielding older brother. That suggests something sensitive and heart-warming, doesn’t it? Certainly it sounds like an original premise, But this version mostly looks like a skeleton of a plot dressed up in shiny production numbers and set-piece songs without much substance underneath.
The other major premise, based on real events, concerns a Northern England community involved in a prolonged miner’s strike in the mid 1980s.
These two elements fuse and intertwine while the people, really simple people, remain simple. As simple as much of how things predictably develop involving predictable characters.
Meanwhile Elton John’s music, pastiche-like, ranges over a variety of styles usually sounding like imitations rather than something original. You’ll hear echoes of A Chorus Line, a sort of waltz, a near-boogie, suggestions of English music hall numbers, some rock and a touch of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
A couple of scenes in the second act look very original. There director Stephen Daldrey has staged a very clever puppet show in which the townspeople mock the Margaret Thatcher administration, which was dedicated to closing down the mines. Then, at the end of the story, Daldrey has come up with an imaginative way to show the miners disappearing into the darkness and depths, returning to work
Other parts of his staging suggest satire, but not nearly pointed enough, while some production numbers even seem strange. Those involve Peter Darling’s choreography. For example, Billy, having barely started learning basic ballet steps, executes a lively tap dance with another pre-teen, Billy’s friend Michael, during which they are joined by a ensemble of human-inhabited costumes of indeterminate sex, the dancers wearing faceless masks. In another scene police and militant strikers confront each other and tangle in the middle of a girl’s ballet class. No doubt these are supposed to be taken symbolically but I still find them weird. Easier to accept: the non-literalness of Billy going into other complex dance routines when clearly, in real life, he hasn’t developed his talent that much.
As for the performances by the cast, everyone convincingly conveys the essentials, but none stands out with memorable interpretation. On opening night Ty Forhan, one of four boys playing Billy, did all the dancing and singing with impressive skill. But he didn’t have specific personality. That made him equal to everyone else in these sketchily written roles.
Speaking of that script, in the second act, without substantial explanation, Billy’s dad suddenly turns around and does all he can to encourage the boy’s endeavor to join The Royal Ballet Company School. Billy’s brother likewise suddenly comes around. These feel good developments look designed to go along with that act’s patently obvious attempts at humor.
Bear the setting in mind; there are accents and regionalisms which might not be everyone’s cup of tea. And parents may have trouble with the constant serving up of the vocabulary of these down-to-earth people; it is flavored with repetitive profanity. So, although the cast is full of kids, parents might be a little wary about bringing youngsters. Likewise questionable for the very young, there’s cross-dressing Michael, who suggests to Billy that they could be different kinds of mates.
Lee Hall’s book occasionally attempts a few moves toward some kind of enlightenment, such as trying to dispel the widespread belief that all male ballet dancers are poofs. He even throws in a few lines about what being a dancer means and about why ballet is art.
Those few moments don’t make this a masterpiece. But clearly, based on the New York reviews when the show opened, I’m way out of step with the majority.
Billy Elliot The Musical continues through February 12th at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/456-6666. www.pgharts.org